What disabilities and developmental challenges are diagnosed in primary school children?

Childhood disabilities and developmental challenges include mobility challenges (such as difficulty or inability to walk), thinking skills and/or behaviour challenges (e.g. intellectual disability, autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), and sensory difficulties (e.g. vision/hearing loss).

Many disabilities will be identified by the time a child attends primary school. This might include more noticeable disabilities such as cerebral palsy, blind and low vision, Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing, physical disability or communication and language disorders. Others may be more difficult to identify before school, or the symptoms might not be obvious until a child is within the school environment. For example, some children with more severe autism are diagnosed before they begin school. Other children with milder challenges may not show clear signs of autism until they start school. Signs might not show until they have difficulties making friends or coping with the daily changes that occur at school. Some of the common developmental challenges or disabilities that may not be recognised until a child is in primary school include:

  • Autism
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Intellectual disability
  • Anxiety
  • Specific learning disability (reading, mathematics, writing)

Do you have concerns about a student’s development?

Parents are often the first to notice a challenge or delay with their child’s development. They may come to you for professional advice. Sometimes teachers will be the first to notice, as some challenges such as social difficulties may only be apparent in group situations like the classroom or playground.

A child may need additional support if some of the following signs are present and affecting a student’s learning, mood, participation, and/or ability to make and keep friends:
  • Low mood or irritability
  • Decrease in their participation in school and/or social activities
  • Difficulty playing or talking with other students
  • Many more challenges with reading, writing or mathematics in comparison to their peers
  • Frequent stomach aches, a racing heart or other physiological symptoms (with no known medical cause)
  • Frequent temper tantrums or meltdowns
  • Struggle with schoolwork finding it much more difficult to understand than their peers
  • Struggle completing schoolwork due to being distracted or unable to sit still
  • Limited, intense or immature interests
  • Avoidance of specific situations such as going to school, social events, school concerts or physical education
  • Refusal to follow requests or instructions
  • Trouble with motor skills like handwriting, ball games or running

How to seek help

If you think a student in your class might be experiencing challenges that impact on their relationships, learning, self-esteem or mood you can talk to the child’s family and discuss what you’ve noticed in a sensitive way. Make sure you bring up both the child’s strengths as well as areas they might need more support with. Families may then wish to talk to their GP, paediatrician or others to seek support and assessment. You can also discuss with families organising assessments or support with psychologists or speech pathologists through your school’s student services team.

Schools plan for meeting diverse student needs using their budgets. Where appropriate, schools will organise applications for additional funding for individual students with disabilities.

An individual education plan may also be helpful. This is a plan with strategies to address the specific needs of a student at school, including schoolwork and behaviour.